English goth-pop princess Charli XCX and Bulgarian quasi-rapper DENA are two young female artists currently changing the face of DIY pop. After being shot together in this exclusive editorial for IDOL mag (in which they are just, you know, casually hanging in a random Turkish grocery store in East London wearing head-to-toe Roberto Piqueras), we spoke to each of them about the genesis of their game-changing experimental pop. Both proudly pronounce their unabashed love of 90’s pop music at its most plastic (Charli, in fact, just recently did an epic cover of Backstreet Boys classic “I Want It That Way”.) DENA tells us about how she emerged from the indie music scene in post-Communist Bulgaria, while Charli, following fellow solo female DIY-artist Grimes, bravely calls out the sexist double standards applied to female songwriters in the music industry.

Interview with Charli XCX

You’ve stated that ultimately your ambition with your new album “true romance” was to make a pop record. What is it exactly that drives you to create pop music in particular?

I grew up listening to pop music and it’s always been around me, so I guess it just permanently filtered through into my brain. It’s so universal too. Pop covers such a large ground: from Kate Bush to Britney Spears and I love it all.

You’ve stated that ultimately your ambition with your new album “true romance” was to make a pop record. What is it exactly that drives you to create pop music in particular?

Baby was my favourite when I was growing up. I really wanted blonde hair and blonde eyebrows. She definitely had the best wardrobe.

Speaking of girl power, grimes recently got a lot of publicity after she wrote a post on tumblr, in which she expresses her frustration about various ways she has been mistreated and spoken down to by men who are in the music industry. Have you experienced anything similar?

Yes. I sometimes get people questioning my authenticity because of the fact that i co-write songs, which is really frustrating because a) it’s a choice i make, b) people do it the world over, c) i just wrote one of the biggest international hits of this year (icona pop’s “i love it”) and lastly when male artists or bands co-write songs they never seem to face the same kind of scrutiny. 

I think it’s horrible that if a male co-writes its not even considered a ‘thing’ whereas if a female co-writes a song suddenly people question her credibility or if she is actually doing anything. It’s so annoying, because i am! I wrote the top line and lyrics for “i love it” in my hotel room in sweden in half an hour totally on my own. I’m very proud of my own record and the songs i’ve fully written and co-written with very talented and amazing people.

You cite a lot of goth characters as inspiration. Do these characters inspire you purely aesthetically or do you relate to them in other ways?

Maybe subconsciously i do… I’m not sure. I just know that the feelings those films and those characters in particular give me allows me to access this creative part of my brain. They just make me dream and imagine more.

How did you end up collaborating with brooke candy?

We met when i was playing at azealia bank’s mermaid ball in la and brooke was hosting. We met backstage and i thought she was super cool, so we hung out a couple of times. I loved her voice, so i sent her the beat for “cloud aura”, which she liked. Then brooke just put her verse down and sent it back a week later, and the rest is history i guess.

What was the biggest challenge about making a proper full-length album for the first time?

Letting go. When you live with something so personal for so long it’s hard to unleash it. I delayed my album release 2 times because i didn’t think the album was perfect. You know, you only get one debut album and i didn’t want mine to be something that i would always wished i took more time on or changed a few things you know… I only released it when it was 100% perfect in my eyes.

Interview with Dena

Where exactly in Bulgaria did you grow up? What was it like there?

I grew up in a town very close to the border with greece and turkey, called haskovo. It was cool being a kid there, but during my late teenage years i just couldn’t wait to go explore the outside world. My friends and i were driven by some kind of an imagination to be somewhere else, in some kind of a cyber punk version of a post-communistic metropolis or something. This imagination saved us from the rather fucked up social and political reality of the early millennium years in bulgaria.

In your experience is bulgaria to some extent “cut off” from western pop culture?

Bulgaria is recovering from having been cut-off for such a long time—politically and culturally—especially during the communist regime. My parents’ generation grew up with very limited access to western music. Bands like the beatles or the stones were forbidden.

I’m lucky to have grown up in a moment, where mtv was already there and the internet was starting to happen. Everyone is pretty much wired and online all the time nowadays. But economically bulgaria is a pretty poor country, and now it’s just that promoters there can’t afford to invite most western acts. This is a pity, cause it’s difficult for indie culture to survive over there. I hope that will change soon! It is getting better already with a bunch of new festivals going on this summer!

So what kind of music did you grow up listening to in post-communist bulgaria?

For some reason the pirate cassettes market maintained way longer in bulgaria. I remember people just ripping original or good quality cds on cassettes. Cds came too late and were too expensive and often not even original themselves. There weren’t really record shops for vinyl selling contemporary or western music. I remember my dad came one day with a cassette, on the one side it was mc hammer and on the other – michael jackson’s “bad”. Dude, that was life changing.

What’s the story of how you started making music?

I wrote my first “song” when i was like 10 years old. I arranged for my sister to sing backing vocals, while i was doing this fun/weird kid rapping in bulgarian. Later i joined the school choir, can you imagine that?

You didn’t really start making music seriously until you moved to Berlin though, correct? 

When i moved to berlin in the mid-2000s i started a band with a friend i met there from toronto, with her on drums and me on synth. We existed for two years and then i got an mpc. After we split i knew i have to focus on writing and developing my own songs. After i made a few demos, i met the finnish gang of producers from kaiku studios in berlin and we started working together, which was like the best thing ever.

How would you describe the music you make? I gather you don’t consider yourself a “rapper” exactly?

It’s something like diy pop i guess. It’s indeed influenced by hip hop and r’n’b, cause this is the music i love, but i am not a rapper! I just sometimes write lyrics that are to be said or sang fast, i like to think of words like the hi-hats of the beats.

In both of your videos for “cash, diamond rings, swimming pools” and “thin rope” you are wearing an assortment of amazing sweaters. Where do you get them?

Oh thank you! The pink one from cdrsp i got from a flea market in london a while ago. It says “escada” on the label and i guess it was meant to fulfill its sweater-life in a flea-market-vibed circle. The yellow one is “bless” and the shiny one is from “starstyling”, cause i was so feeling holograms and plasmatic visions some months ago.

Favorite gif so far in 2013?


Which artists especially inspire you?

Destiny’s child, marina and the diamonds, jay dilla, sun ra, my friends from the kaiku studios fam, björk. Artists beyond music: i’ve been researching a lot about marina abramovic recently. In fashion i am inspired by the gap between original and fake.


Interview by stephanie malik
photography by louie banks
styling and clothing by roberto piqueras